Vienna, November 2006

By Nancy Ziegler

One of the first things I was told about group travel is that trips should be logistically elegant.  Understanding how such magic happens took me a good deal longer, but it began in Vienna.  This picture – snapped by Ellen Renstrom, our Vice President of Operations– captured me and Kate Klorer on our inaugural training trip, caught in a surprise snow shower outside the Naschmarkt.

I am smiling, chin up, so I trust no one else could tell I was utterly disordered by jet lag and hopped up on sachertorte and strong coffee. Mozart! Klimt! Cakes!  I had thought when the plane landed in the early morning two days before.  True, all Vienna awaited me, but hardly the way I had imagined.

Ellen gave Kate and me our assignments as our taxi zipped out of the airport.  We had less than three days to collect enough material for three weeks’ worth of itineraries.  Plus gather the first-hand intelligence so priceless to tour directors who lead groups on the ground.  Travelers love impromptu events, but believe me, Tour Directors loath surprises.  We started scribbling the notes that would become a five-thousand word report.  First memo to TDs: the airport ATM is on the left-hand side as you exit customs; Austrian airport taxis do accept American credit cards.

That’s Inge, a Red Badge national guide, ahead of us in the dark glasses. The snow shower must have caught her out too, though as I remember, few things actually stopped Inge.  In St. Stephen’s, she somehow had the key to the cathedral’s private altar gate. We slipped through it after her to approach the sacred stained glass windows, survivors of World War II, closer even than their parishioners.

Inge literally marched us by all of Vienna’s treasures. Jugendstil statues led to Biedermeier interiors, Baroque recital halls and charming Kaffeehäuser. Step in, look, step out. We orbited the Ringstrasse.  Did Mozarthaus drive-bys. We eyeballed riverboat berths, Lipizanner stallions and opera boxes.

Learn to ignore the art, ignore the beauty, Ellen coached us, so we truly saw the mundane.  Where could the motorcoach pick up safely outside the konzerthaus? Where is the elevator? Where are the WCs?

Notice my camera in my left hand.  No mere tourist holiday snaps for us.  We catalogued whirlpool tubs (fit for a Habsburg?), rainfall shower heads (water pressure?), private salons (musty or dusty?) and marble staircases (slippery!). Memo to TD: Yes, the spa at Hotel Sacher is fabulous and recommended. In the mitteleuropa fashion, it is also co-ed—so be sure a traveler seeking rejuvenation understands that bathing suits are both optional and rare.

We collected menus, maps, floor plans, postcards, pillow mints, souvenirs, brochures and business cards.  All such swag went on file in the New York office, there to jog our memories when our operations team planned Viennese sojourns.

As it happened, Kate later led an AAA group in Vienna as a Tour Director, while I planned similar trips from New York with Ellen’s generous help .  And I did get to see Klimt’s The Kiss. Briefly. But only after we scouted the museum facilities and understood its group ticketing options.  Memo to TD: Visit the Upper Belvedere palace first, so travelers can amble downhill—not up—through the charming gardens. Snow possible in November, but the chestnut trees will be abloom the last week in April. We’ll plan for it.

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